Monday PM March 29th, 2010

Enterprise Products Partners chairman and co-founder, billionaire Dan Duncan, dies at age 77…Gasoline price average in Houston area up almost six cents in a week…Independent Commission on Wartime Contracting probes number of KBR employees in Iraq…

Billionaire Houston energy tycoon Dan Duncan has died. He was 77. Enterprise Products Partners said in a statement that Duncan died at his Houston home Sunday. The midstream energy giant has more than 48,000 miles of natural gas, petrochemical and crude oil pipelines and 25 natural gas processing plants. Duncan co-founded Enterprise Products Company in 1968 and took Enterprise Products Partners public in July 1998. Duncan ranked 74th on Forbes’ latest worldwide list of billionaires with an estimated net worth of $9 billion.

Consumers spent modestly last month, a sign that the economic recovery is proceeding at a decent–but not spectacular–pace. The government says consumers boosted their spending 0.3 percent in February, a tad slower than the 0.4 percent increase in January. Still, the increase was considered a respectable showing, especially given the snowstorms that slammed the East Coast. Americans’ incomes, however, were flat. That followed a solid 0.3 percent gain in January and suggested consumers will stay cautious in the months ahead, making for a modest recovery. Spending growth matched economists’ expectations. The showing on incomes was a bit weaker than forecast.

Average retail gasoline prices in Houston have risen 5.6 cents per gallon in the past week, now averaging $2.70, according to The national average has moved up 1.6 cents to $2.79 per gallon. We’re paying over 20 cents per gallon more for gasoline than just a month ago.

The Independent Commission on Wartime Contracting wants to know whether American contractors in Iraq are adequately reducing the number of employees in the country as U.S. troops are withdrawn. The commissioners took up the matter at a Capitol Hill hearing. At issue is whether the government is ensuring that contractors don’t have idle workers. Each contracted employee can cost thousands of dollars a month, and some 100,000 contracted employees are working in Iraq. The number of U.S. troops in Iraq is scheduled to fall to 50,000 in August; all are to leave by the end of 2011. KBR, the army’s primary support contractor in Iraq, was warned last fall by Pentagon auditors to cut its numbers or face nearly $200 million in penalties.

Texas Comptroller Susan Combs says 17 colleges statewide will receive more than $3.51 million in Job Building Fund grants, and ten non-profits will receive more than $2.86 million in Launchpad Funds to help with technical training. The Job Building Fund helps finance equipment purchases supporting high-growth industry technical education programs. Houston Community College is receiving $338,300 for equipment for its solar, thermal and wind certificate programs. Colleges provide matching funds in cash, equipment, materials, supplies and personnel costs.

Texas colleges and universities are increasingly building environmental practices into curriculums, a move officials say is a combination of “good business” and idealism. Sustainability is a wide-ranging field of study to prepare students for a more environmentally conscious world. The Houston Chronicle reports that the concept is showing up in various forms in academia. The University of Houston has a class about carbon trading, while Rice University offers minors in energy and water sustainability. Community colleges, boosted by stimulus funding and federal grants, push green technology work force training. A University of Texas at Austin official says such studies are essential for jobs and appeal to the current generation.

Apple’s iPad tablet computer hits U.S. shelves on Saturday, but fans who want the new touch-screen gadget shipped directly to them must wait a week. The company began taking preorders for the iPad on March 12th, promising to get the device to eager buyers by its store launch date of April 3rd. Customers who placed pre-orders by March 27th will receive the device by that date, where Saturday delivery is available. But Apple said Sunday that new pre-orders won’t be shipped out until April 12th. The company declined to give a reason for the shipping delay, but said would-be customers can still pre-order the iPad for in-store pickup on April 3rd, or purchase the device in stores that day. The iPads going on sale will connect to wi-fi networks only and cost $499 to $699, depending on the data storage capacity. Versions that also can connect to 3G cellular networks are expected to go on sale in late April for $629 to $829. International releases also are planned for later in April.

The Treasury Department says it will begin selling the stake it owns in Citigroup. The government received 7.7 billion shares of Citigroup in exchange for $25 billion it gave the bank during the 2008 credit crisis. It says it will sell the shares over the course of this year, depending on market conditions. Citi was one of the hardest hit banks during the credit crisis and recession. It received a total of $45 billion in bailout money. Citi repaid the other $20 billion it owed the treasury in December. The Treasury says Morgan Stanley will handle the sale of the shares.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner says mounting losses from commercial real estate loans will continue to be a problem for the U.S., and especially smaller banks, but that it can be managed. “Commercial real estate’s still going to be a problem for the country,” Geithner said in an interview with CNBC. “But we can manage through this process.” Geithner also said the Treasury Department’s announcement that it will begin selling the stake it owns in Citigroup, which could net about $7.5 billion to the government, shows “how far we’ve come” in exiting from the financial bailout program.

The Treasury Department plans to unveil $600 million in financial aid for five more states with high unemployment that have been slammed by the housing bust, two people briefed on the plan said. The announcement of funding for North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina and Rhode Island comes on top of the $1.5 billion in funding announced last month by the Obama administration for Arizona, California, Florida, Michigan and Nevada, which all have deeply depressed home prices. The new money is going to housing finance agencies in states with the most people in counties with unemployment rates above 12 percent.

The landmark settlement between black farmers and the Agriculture Department could unravel since Congress adjourned for a two-week break without approving the spending. The $1.25 billion settlement allows plaintiffs to back out if money isn’t appropriated by the end of the month. That won’t happen since Congress is away. Some plaintiffs fear lawyers who wanted more money may decide against sticking with the agreement, which is for past Agriculture Department discrimination.

U.S. farmers produced record dry pea and lentil crops last year, and the bounty couldn’t have come at a better time. The industry is increasing its efforts to convince Americans to use legumes in foods such as breads and cookies as well as more traditional soups and stews. The newly formed American Pulse Association is bringing about 50 experts to Beltsville, Maryland, this week to discuss strategies. Food experts say the timing is right. They say farmers could capitalize on everything from an increased awareness of intolerance to gluten, found in many grains, to a greater interest in international cuisines.

Parts of Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Idaho may be in store for costly grasshopper infestations this summer. Federal surveys predict at least 48 million acres of outbreak-level infestation this summer. Charles Brown, of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, says some states may see the most severe grasshopper outbreaks in nearly 30 years. Ranchers, farmers and pest control agencies are praying for cool and wet weather to stifle the young grasshoppers when they hatch around May and June. In the meantime, they’re scrambling to line up the millions of dollars it will cost to battle an outbreak with aerial insecticide. Grasshoppers are found across the United States, but outbreaks of pest species are most common in the plains and western states.

Anadarko Petroleum President and CEO James T. Hackett’s compensation rose six percent in 2009 as the company’s stock gained ground along with the cost of energy. The oil company, based in The Woodlands, paid Hackett $23.5 million, up from $22.2 million a year prior. Meanwhile, shares gained 62 percent to end 2009 at $62.42. Anadarko, like all energy producers, was been hurt by the recession as energy use fell. Yet under Hackett, Anadarko is finding new energy sources, including a potentially large field in the Gulf of Mexico. The AP’s executive pay calculation, based on a regulatory filing, aims to isolate the value the company’s board placed on the CEO’s total compensation package. The figure includes salary, bonus, incentives, perks and the estimated value of stock options and awards.

While this week will be a short one for investors, the personal spending and income numbers are just the start of plenty of economic data for traders to analyze. There will be a report on consumer confidence tomorrow and a manufacturing report on Thursday. And while the government will release its March employment report on Friday, the markets will be closed for Good Friday. Investors will have to wait until next Monday to trade on the news.

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